Human Rights Watch: Free Speech in Asia Took a Beating in 2020

Shailaja Neelakantan
Human Rights Watch: Free Speech in Asia Took a Beating in 2020 Filipino activists and relatives of people killed in the country’s war on drugs hold a rally in observance of Human Rights Day, in Manila, Dec. 10, 2019.

Free speech was curtailed in many countries in South and Southeast Asia as governments moved to silence critics in the year of a global pandemic, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report for 2020 released Wednesday.

Freedom of the press in particular took a hit in the BenarNews target countries of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, as they and other nations reeled from the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, New York-based HRW said.

In addition, Thailand increased its repression of basic rights by cracking down violently on a pro-democracy movement, and the Philippine government used the pandemic as a pretext to expand its bloody war on drugs, the watchdog said.

In Bangladesh, “authorities arrested journalists, artists, students, doctors, political opposition members and activists who spoke out against the government’s response to the pandemic, or otherwise criticized the ruling party,” Human Rights Watch reported in its annual review of human rights practices worldwide.

“The ruling Awami League showed in 2020 that it will stop at almost nothing to maintain its grip on authoritarian control, even in the face of a global pandemic,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that accompanied the release of its World Report 2020.

Bangladesh’s government “needs to stop worrying about cartoonists and kids criticizing the Prime Minister on Facebook, and start worrying about abuses by its own authorities amid the pandemic,” Adams added.

Environmental journalists targeted

In Indonesia, four news media organizations were subject to hacking and other digital attacks after publishing critical stories about military involvement in pushing a COVID-19 vaccine, Human Rights Watch said.

Journalists and environmental activists were also targeted by the government and police in the archipelago-nation, the report said.

For instance, HRW noted that journalist Diananta Sumedi spent three months in jail last year for writing articles about a land dispute between indigenous people and an oil company, and police arrested three student-journalists after they joined a protest by fishermen against sand mining.

In Malaysia, “freedom of expression came under attack immediately after the change in government, when authorities opened a sedition investigation into activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri for organizing a protest against the method by which the new government came to power,” HRW said.

The report was referring to an unelected coalition that came to power last March after an elected administration fell in the wake of a power struggle.

“Since then, authorities have opened investigations into numerous activists and opposition politicians for speech critical of the government. The police had opened 262 investigations into the spread of ‘false and seditious news’ as of May 11, and 264 investigations into ‘false news’ on COVID-19,” HRW’s report said.

The government also sought to hold online news portals responsible for comments posted by their readers, the rights watchdog noted.

It was referring to contempt of court proceedings against Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the news organization Malaysiakini, after some readers had posted online comments critical of the country’s judiciary on an article published by the news site.

A verdict in this case is expected on Friday.

Prosecutions under sedition

In the Philippines, “the media also came under renewed attack,” HRW’s report said.

The June conviction of crusading Philippine journalist Maria Ressa “on politically motivated charges of cyber libel stemming from Rappler’s persistent reporting on the ‘drug war,’” was one such attack, HRW said.

A month later, the Philippine Congress voted not to extend the franchise of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network, “which had often criticized the government’s ‘drug war,’ forcing the network’s closure,” the report added.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, the government “the government routinely enforced censorship, including on social media platforms, blocking and punishing opinions the authorities deemed critical of the monarchy,” amid huge pro-democracy protests that began last July, HRW said.

“As of December, at least 35 people, including a 16-year-old boy, were charged under article 112 of the penal code [insulting the monarchy] for demanding reform of the monarchy, or saying or writing or doing anything the authorities considered offensive to the monarchy,” the report said.

Critics of the monarchy were also prosecuted under sedition, cybercrime, and other legal provisions, it added.

Last month, the teenager and a fellow activist were charged in Bangkok for allegedly violating Thailand’s strict royal defamation law by performing in a satirical street show that poked fun at the monarchy during a pro-democracy protest.

“The Thai authorities have prosecuted dissenters, violently dispersed peaceful protests, censored news and social media, and punished critical political speech,” Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said.

“Thailand’s foreign friends should stop ignoring the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country.”

Thai crackdown on pro-democracy activists

In 2020, the Thai government also “escalated its repression of basic rights” in the face of a growing, youth-led democracy movement demanding political and constitutional reforms, Human Rights Watch said.

Protests that started on July 18 spread across the country. They called for the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the drafting of a new constitution, and curbs on the king’s powers.

In October, Thai riot police turned water cannons mixed with a chemical dye that can irritate skin at pro-democracy demonstrators, after thousands gathered in Bangkok to defy a state of emergency in the city at the time.

The next month, dozens of people were injured, including some with bullet injuries from shots fired by unidentified gunmen, after thousands of pro-democracy protesters clashed with police and royalists in Bangkok near parliament.

“The Thai government has responded to peaceful demands from youth for sweeping political reforms by making Thailand’s human rights crisis go from bad to worse,” Adams said.

Philippine drug war

Killings related to the anti-drug campaign in the Philippines increased “dramatically” soon after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered general COVID-19 quarantines for many densely populated areas, Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher for HRW, said in September.

Police killed 50 percent more people between April and July 2020 than they did in the previous four-month period,” he said on HRW’s website.

“The Duterte administration appeared to take advantage of COVID-19 curfews in 2020 to expand its gruesome and bloody ‘war on drugs,’” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

On top of this, the government “is ‘red-baiting’ leftist activists, rights defenders, and others have put them at greater risk of deadly attack,” Robertson said.

He was referring to the Philippine military and police labelling groups or individuals as being supporters of communist rebels, or as insurgents themselves involved with alleged legal fronts for the New People’s Army – the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party.

Last month, a city health officer, who was targeted on a list allegedly circulated by an anti-communist group, was gunned down with her husband on the central Philippine island of Negros.

Four other people on the list were slain in the months leading up to the killings of the health officer and her spouse.

“As respect for human rights in the Philippines spirals downwards, concerned governments, and U.N. agencies will need to press the Duterte government harder to halt its atrocities and hold those responsible to account,” Robertson said.


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